British rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his son, Jack, slipped into Lexington on April 15 to shoot a segment of their road-trip reality TV show at a bizarre but little-known museum of 19th-century medical curiosities.
James Day, a Transylvania physics professor and curator of the museum, said producers won’t let him discuss the show before it airs. So he couldn’t say what interested the Osbournes most.
Was it the 14-inch hairball cut from a cow’s stomach in 1848? Fetal skeletons in glass domes? The piece of the “mystery meat” that rained down on a Kentucky farm in 1876? Or maybe the 1820s anatomical model of a woman made in wax?
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Day couldn’t say. But a video clip that A&E posted Monday on Twitter to promote the show might answer the question. It shows Osborne opening a box of mummified penises that were used to teach anatomy to surgeons before the Civil War.
“They’re usually not on display,” Day told me, pointing to the closed box in a cabinet.
Day said the network’s producers contacted him several months before the visit, describing their project only as a father-and-son travel show.
“They didn’t mention that it was Ozzy for a long time,” he said. “When they did, I laughed out loud. I was picturing a couple of nerds, not a rock star.”
The Moosnick Museum is the latest incarnation of medical and natural history exhibits that the university has displayed since at least 1802.
Virginia lawmakers chartered Transylvania University in 1780, 12 years before Kentucky became a state. By 1799, the university had started a medical school to train physicians for what was then the western frontier.
From the 1820s through the 1840s, Transylvania was among the nation’s most prestigious medical schools, thanks largely to faculty member Benjamin Dudley, who was considered one of the most gifted surgeons of his time.
The medical school trained 4,385 physicians before it closed in 1859. Many faculty members left for what is now the University of Louisville School of Medicine, in part because Lexington was too small to have an adequate supply of corpses for students to dissect. Because there was no legal trade in bodies in the 1800s, medical students sometimes robbed fresh graves.
Many of the museum’s rarest items were bought in Europe in 1821 and 1839, when Transylvania sent professors with money to bring back new technology.
The best relic from the 1821 trip is the Medical Venus from Florence, Italy. The model re-creates the female anatomy in wax, the organs carefully modeled from the cadavers of about 200 women.
The model, originally described as beautiful, is grotesque with age. She has lost her limbs, some of her wax skin and a few organs, most likely when Transylvania’s Medical Hall burned in 1863 while it was being used as a Civil War hospital.
Among the ideas Transylvania chemist Robert Peter brought back from the 1839 trip to Europe was photography. He sailed with a nephew of photography pioneer Louis Daguerre. Based on a description of the process, Peter designed one of America’s first Daguerreotype cameras. The museum has it and a few dark plates.
The museum’s most popular artifact — the namesake of its Twitter account, @incrediblehairball — is the 14-inch cow’s hairball donated in 1848 by alumnus George Rogers Clark Todd, a brother of future first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
“It’s an amazing artifact,” Day said. “It’s the largest one I’m aware of in the world.”
Another popular artifact is a chunk of meat-like substance preserved in a jar. Mary Crouch said enough of the stuff to fill a wagon rained from the sky onto her farm in Bath County on the afternoon of March 3, 1876.
The “Kentucky meat shower” created a sensation in newspapers of the time, and this chunk was sent to Transylvania for study. The mystery remains unsolved, but Day has sent the meat off for analysis to try to figure out what it is.
The museum has many human bones, skulls, preserved body parts and rare anatomical models. There is a large collection of stuffed animals and birds, a few of which are now extinct.
A large medical instrument collection includes an early-1800s device for blowing tobacco smoke into the bowels of drowning victims. The treatment rarely revived them, but it did inspire a crude expression to describe flattery.
The collection, most of which is housed in a classroom building’s basement, is the nation’s second-largest of its kind, after Harvard University, Day said. But it isn’t well known, even in Lexington, and it’s shown by appointment only (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Day said Osborne’s producers probably learned about it from the online forum Reddit.
“Maybe the publicity from this will make somebody want to give us seed money for a real museum,” he said. “It’s wonderful stuff, and we need to showcase it better.”